Fletcher Features

Looking Back To Brand Forward: Citi’s “200 Years” Campaign

What do the Panama Canal, the first transatlantic cable, and the Marshall Plan have in common? They were all financed in part by Citi, the global financial company that is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. A legacy of support for these and other historic innovations inspired the company’s latest worldwide branding campaign, explained Susan Avarde, Citi Head of Global Branding, during a visit to The Fletcher School in late November.

Building a strong brand, Avarde said, is difficult in a “transparent world with multiple audiences,” in which consumers “may already carry in their minds a sense of who you are and what you stand for.”  To succeed in the marketplace, she said, brands must be new and true, i.e. offer a new interpretation of who you are but remain authentic to your purpose.

Avarde joined Citibank in 1998 and currently oversees the company’s global brand strategy and implementation. An industry veteran, she has created award-winning campaigns for a range of clients including Vogue, BP, Air France, and AT&T. Her talk, titled “Why Brand Matters: The New and the True,” was hosted by the Institute for Business in the Global Context (IBGC). Avarde’s presentation covered current trends in international branding as well as Citi’s efforts to refine its brand over the past decade.

Branding isn’t just for corporations any more, she said: countries are beginning to take national branding efforts seriously as evidenced by the United Kingdom’s recent “Cool Britannia” and Olympic-inspired “GREAT Britain” campaigns, as well as Portugal’s efforts to position itself as “Europe’s West Coast.”  Avarde believes that more and more countries will adopt nation branding efforts in the future.  She also noted that the idea of “personal branding” has gained traction within the human resources community. “How you manage who you are and what you stand for is important,” she said.

Citi’s global reach, Avarde said, is largely the legacy of Fletcher alumnus Walter B. Wriston, MALD ‘42, who joined the company in 1946 and rose through the ranks to become president and CEO and ultimately chairman. “When he came into Citi, he was surprised at the small footprint and worked hard to expand during the lead-up to his presidency and his time as chair,” she said. “Given his background at Fletcher and experience serving with the U.S. Army in the Philippines, he felt very confident around the international marketplace.”

When Avarde joined the company, executives were eager to “get the brand in good shape” to meet the 200th anniversary and prepare for future demands of the financial services marketplace. Among the key challenges: to prepare for a digital world; to appeal more to individuals in light of growing one-on-one financial relationships; and to meet the challenges of increasing urbanization, particularly in India and China.

Avarde and her team decided the time was right to create some separation from the familiar “-bank” suffix and emphasize the master brand as “Citi,” in part due to the fact that in some countries of operation Citi did not actually serve as a bank, whereas in other countries banking was available as just one part of a broader services portfolio, including credit cards. The “Citi” name also echoed rising urbanization, inherently embracing “the idea of the change that was coming,” Avarde said.

Her group also brought back a blue color palette that Citi had leveraged previously to represent “24-7, dawn to dusk, in every country around the world.”  Finally, Citi introduced various sub-brands into the fold to tighten identity across all franchises; for example, renaming South Korean subsidiary KorAm Bank as Citibank Korea.   

Reorganization under former chairman and CEO John Reed that shifted the corporate structure to management by global product lines helped facilitate this change. “From a brand management perspective, it becomes challenging when each market is running its own brand or company. It’s a lot easier…if everything is managed up through global product lines,” she said.

The 200th anniversary campaign, which Avarde described in detail, marked the most dramatic re-framing of the Citi brand. Company archivists played a key role, helping to determine the most compelling stories of the past 200 years, including Citi’s involvement in financing the Panama Canal, the transatlantic cable, and the Marshall Plan. Citi also conducted rigorous market research with thousands of consumers across the globe.

“When people learned we had been around so long,” she said, “they decided that to survive we must have been innovative, we must have adapted…we must have been resilient.”

Avarde decided to capitalize on this, essentially “telling the story” of the corporation and emphasizing its role in backing innovators and new businesses.  “Most banks are not great storytellers; it’s not really in their DNA,” she said. “But we learned, as we restaged our brand, that it was important to tell the positive role that the organization had held in enabling progress.”  The subsequent campaign featured historic images and stories of innovation where Citi involvement was crucial, often customized by market to ensure cultural relevance.

“We were initially wary of it…saying ‘Happy Birthday To Me’ didn’t seem like a good strategy. But people were interested,” Avarde said. The general impression among consumers was that an institution lasting 200 years “would be the kind of organization you’d want by your side when going through a crisis” – a key quality in today’s challenging economy.

So far, Avarde said, the results have been compelling. A review of Citi’s “tag clouds,” or digital representations of word frequency, reveals that more visitors are aligning the company with ideas such as “innovative,” “pioneer,” and “leader.”  There’s also been an uptick in employees’ sense of pride.  “For our audiences,” Avarde added, “it was new and it was true.”

To view the campaign and explore Citi’s history, visit http://www.citigroup.com/citi/#!200

-- Emily Simon, MALD '13 Candidate

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